CHAR­LIE PORT­LOCK

Char­lie Port­lock opens a win­dow into the world of the game-shoot keeper

Air Gunner - - Contents -

Make friends with a game­keeper, says Char­lie, for your mu­tual ben­e­fit

G ame­keep­ers are busy peo­ple who work hard con­tin­u­ally to solve a wide va­ri­ety of prob­lems. We can help them in this task if we’re well in­formed and sen­si­tive to their needs. This month, we’ll be look­ing at build­ing our un­der­stand­ing of what goes into run­ning a suc­cess­ful shoot, and in­ves­ti­gat­ing when the air­gun­ner might be able to prove his/her util­ity. I’m grate­ful to ap­pren­tice keeper, Pa­trick Dick­son, who took some time out of his busy week to share some of the chal­lenges that he faces in the job, and to dis­cuss how dili­gent and proac­tive air­gun­ners might be part of the so­lu­tion.

THE KEEPER

Tra­di­tion­ally, the game­keeper was charged with or­gan­is­ing the sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties of a coun­try es­tate. Pri­mar­ily, this meant main­tain­ing and in­creas­ing the pop­u­la­tions of quarry species through habi­tat man­age­ment, feed­ing and predator con­trol, as well as en­sur­ing that his em­ployer and their guests were well looked af­ter dur­ing their sport­ing pur­suits. These in­clude a va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­i­ties from low­land and up­land deer stalk­ing to driven grouse, pheas­ant and par­tridge shoot­ing, as well as rough shoot­ing (walked up) and wa­ter­fowl­ing.

The head keeper would also have been re­spon­si­ble for de­ter­ring poach­ers as well as over­see­ing es­tate se­cu­rity. On more tra­di­tional landed es­tates this role has re­mained largely the same, whilst grow­ing to in­cor­po­rate other el­e­ments like habi­tat man­age­ment.

There are now also a great num­ber of small, in­de­pen­dent shoots across the UK run as syn­di­cates by col­lec­tions of friends, farm­ers and neigh­bours. In ad­di­tion to these less fi­nan­cially minded shoot­ing en­ter­prises, there are many largescale com­mer­cial shoots run purely for profit. The air­gun­ner can be of great util­ity to all of the above, but if you’ve never been beat­ing or driven shoot­ing, this world can seem a lit­tle mys­te­ri­ous. So just what can we do to help out and to in­crease our shoot­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties?

THE PROB­LEM SOLVER

We’ve talked be­fore about the need to of­fer some­thing to keep­ers and landown­ers when look­ing for per­mis­sion, and Pa­trick echoed this sen­ti­ment when I asked him how air­gun­ners can get best get a boot in the door.

“Come beat­ing, be po­lite and in­ter­ac­tive, and do a good job. Sim­ple.”

By far the best way to build trust and a work­ing re­la­tion­ship with a shoot is to go beat­ing (driv­ing the birds to the guns) from Oc­to­ber to Fe­bru­ary. It’s nor­mally paid, circa £25.00 per day, al­though on smaller shoots it won’t be, and ev­ery­body just shares the work­load. Once you’re known to your lo­cal keeper or shoot­ing syn­di­cate, it helps to be able to of­fer a few so­lu­tions to their prob­lems.

“One of the big­gest jobs is in March when we need to get a huge net over the lay­ing pens to keep out birds of prey and carriers of dis­eases.”

For many keep­ers the spring is

a busy time of year as they work to pre­pare the lay­ing, rear­ing and re­lease pens and con­trol preda­tors that might en­ter these en­clo­sures to take eggs or young birds. In terms of air­gun­ning, rats, squir­rels and corvids all present prob­lems be­cause they’re per­sis­tent and clever. Wood­land rab­bits can also be an is­sue from March un­til the birds are re­leased in the au­tumn be­cause they can un­der­mine the wire and cre­ate holes for small preda­tors like stoats, and even foxes, to use as en­try points.

In light of the above, air­gun­ners can start by beat­ing and then of­fer to help out with the lay­ing pens. Af­ter that, they should find them­selves trusted and in a po­si­tion to ap­proach the sub­ject of shoot­ing, if it hasn’t al­ready arisen. Not all keep­ers use air ri­fles be­cause they of­ten need to carry some­thing more ver­sa­tile to deal with corvids on the wing, as well as squir­rels and foxes, and so a 12 bore shot­gun is stan­dard. How­ever, keep­ers will be keen for you to help to con­trol rats, squir­rels and corvids be­cause it makes their job eas­ier.

RO­DENTS

Grey squir­rels can present prob­lems in the lay­ing pen. It’s here that the hen birds lay the eggs that are then sat upon in situ, or more of­ten col­lected for in­cu­ba­tion, hatch­ing and re­lease. Squir­rels will eat eggs, as will rats, and both species will hap­pily raid grain feed­ers all year round, par­tic­u­larly in the win­ter when other food is scarce. Squir­rels can also pose a se­ri­ous threat to hard­wood saplings if their num­bers aren’t kept in check. If a shoot has a long-term habi­tat man­age­ment strat­egy for both shoot­ing, bio- di­ver­sity and forestry, then keep­ing young trees alive to pro­vide cover, tim­ber and nest­ing sites is im­por­tant. Some squir­rels are use­ful in terms of bio- di­ver­sity, but keep­ers will al­ways ap­pre­ci­ate a help­ing and trusted hand in keep­ing their num­bers down.

CORVIDS

I live next to a shoot that borders

some pas­ture, and in four years I’ve never seen a magpie. There’s a good rea­son for this, not least be­cause corvids pre­date upon young lambs and ewes but also be­cause they’ll hap­pily take pheas­ant eggs and de­stroy the nest­ing sites of many birds. Corvids are in­cred­i­bly in­tel­li­gent; they have ad­vanced so­cial struc­tures and in the case of crows, a well ev­i­denced abil­ity to use lan­guage. They’re wary, wily and eva­sive. I very rarely shoot them per­son­ally, but if you can bag one or two of these birds you’ll be do­ing any farmer or keeper a favour.

INTO THE WILD

Ev­ery year, some lucky birds es­cape the guns and re­turn to the wild. Al­though the ma­jor­ity of hens will be rounded up and win­tered in rel­a­tive se­cu­rity and com­fort, this small per­cent­age will breed, nest and rear young com­pletely nat­u­rally. This will al­most cer­tainly be the case on small, syn­di­cated rough shoots that only host two or three walked up days per year for friends and neigh­bours, and it’s here that the air­gun­ner can re­ally make a dif­fer­ence. In the ab­sence of com­mer­cial in­ter­ests or ded­i­cated fund­ing from a landowner, the part-time keep­ers will likely have all of the above prob­lems with­out the re­sources to solve them. Al­though smaller pri­vate shoots are likely to be less well known, there will be peo­ple in the beat­ing of any larger shoot who will ei­ther be part of such an en­ter­prise or will know peo­ple who are. Beat­ing re­ally is the best way in to more shoot­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. Con­tact the Bri­tish As­so­ci­a­tion for Shoot­ing and Con­ser­va­tion (www. basc.org.uk) for more in­for­ma­tion about where to start.

SAY­ING ‘YES’

The quiet re­port of an air ri­fle is a dis­tinct ad­van­tage when shoot­ing around pens be­cause it doesn’t dis­tress the birds prior to the shoot­ing sea­son in the same way that a shot­gun would. Stressed birds don’t hold well in one area and if they’re not con­cen­trated in one place then they don’t fly well. A keeper’s rep­u­ta­tion is built upon how his/her birds fly. The air ri­fle is also seen as a safe op­tion in ar­eas where there are live­stock or foot­paths, en­abling the keeper to carry out squir­rel, rat or corvid con­trol in an un­der­stated man­ner. Al­though the ma­jor­ity of this will in­volve lethal or live trap­ping, a ded­i­cated and con­sis­tent per­son with an air ri­fle can very eas­ily be part of the so­lu­tion to a va­ri­ety of keeper­ing co­nun­drums.

I asked Pa­trick if he’d be will­ing to let a help­ful, will­ing beater do some shoot­ing around the pens. He was cau­tious.

“I’d prob­a­bly say yes, but give them cer­tain places to go. My worry would be that if the birds were down (July on­wards) and I’d said that they could shoot some squir­rels, that they might be go­ing off where they shouldn’t be. That would be a big no no. They’d need to stick to the ar­eas we agreed on and only shoot what we agreed.”

CROSS­ING OVER

Both ama­teur and pro­fes­sional keep­ers share a great deal of com­mon in­ter­ests with air­gun­ners. Even if you don’t cur­rently know of any shoots lo­cal to you, it’s very likely that the landown­ers and farm­ers of your ex­ist­ing per­mis­sions do, and it doesn’t take a great deal of com­plex net­work­ing to forge some new con­nec­tions if you know how best to ap­proach the sit­u­a­tion. It also pays to be aware of the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. Shoot­ing sports are un­der an in­creas­ing amount of pres­sure and are of­ten the sub­ject of neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity, par­tic­u­larly around the is­sues of com­mer­cial shoots bury­ing their birds, grouse moor man­age­ment and rap­tor per­se­cu­tion. This could un­der­stand­ably make peo­ple in­creas­ingly wary of ac­cept­ing help from un­known quar­ters un­til trust has been es­tab­lished, and a slow and steady ap­proach is ad­vis­able. Thank­fully, air­gun­ners are in the per­fect po­si­tion to do just that. Best. Char­lie.

“Both ama­teur and pro­fes­sional keep­ers share a great deal of com­mon in­ter­ests with air­gun­ners”

ABOVE: I joined Pa­trick on his rounds

ABOVE: Small shoots also need your help

RIGHT: Pa­trick didn’t want to put the Weihrauch down

FAR RIGHT: The hand­some pheas­ant is the num­ber one game bird in the UK

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